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Tar Pits

Started: 2022-01-09 16:57:28

Submitted: 2022-01-09 19:04:50

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Seeing the La Brea Tar Pits, and ringing in 2022

For breakfast on New Year's Eve in Los Angeles, we went around the corner to eat at the French bakery Pitchoun! (The exclamation point seems to be an integral part of their name, resulting in some slightly-awkward copy on their website.) I ate an Instagram-worthy spread of avocado toast and a raspberry jam Danish. We ate outside on a little patio tucked away from the street; yesterday's rain had been replaced with bright sun in an almost-clear sky.

Avocado toast from Pitchoun!
Avocado toast from Pitchoun!

Our next stop was the Angels Flight Railway, a few blocks away in DTLA. This was a historic funicular railway running up a hill for a single block using the original cars from 1901 (but with a rebuilt undercarriage and trackway).

Angels Flight Railway lower station
Angels Flight Railway lower station

We arrived at the unattended lower station while one of the cars was waiting at the station, with people inside and its door opened. Inside there were still seats available, though every other seat had a sign on the seat indicating that it ought to be left empty to accommodate physical distancing, with the slogan "Let's ride this out together". The bench seats were big enough that Julian and I fit on one seat, and Kiesa and Calvin fit on another adjacent seat, occupying the last two seats in the carriage.

Calvin inside Angels Flight Railway
Calvin inside Angels Flight Railway

After a few minutes the clear plastic door at the bottom of the train closed and the carriage began to move up the track, pulled by a cable connecting my carriage to its sibling at the top of the track. We accelerated gently and, at the mid-point of the track, veered to the left to pass the other carriage coming down.

Julian and Jaeger on Angels Flight Railway
Julian and Jaeger on Angels Flight Railway

At the top of the track the carriage came to a gentle stop, and the door opened and we stepped out through the boarding door at the top end of the carriage onto the attended platform. I paid for our round-trip tickets ($1 per person, each way) and we waited at the top of the station to look around and wait for the next empty train going down.

Angels Flight Railway
Angels Flight Railway

After a few minutes the carriage we had ridden on departed and I watched the operation of the railway. As the other carriage approached the top, another group of people arrived at the station, so we stood in line to be the first people to board the next carriage when it arrived.

Inside Angels Flight Railway
Inside Angels Flight Railway

On the way down I watched the other carriage ascend in our direction and noticed that the two trains effectively operate on separate tracks, without any switches or other devices to route the opposite carriages onto opposite tracks while they pass in the middle of the track. They share a single center rail, but their wheels are mounted on opposite sides of the rail, and each carriage gets its own outside rail.

Angels Flight Railway cars pass
Angels Flight Railway cars pass

At the bottom, with our quirky excursion train quota satisfied, I turned my attention to getting a ride to the La Brea Tar Pits out on Wilshire. This proved easier said than done: In order to get enough space for our family of four, we needed a "Lyft XL", which was in short supply in DTLA, and none of the drivers in the area seemed to be especially interested in the ride. When the app indicated that we might have to wait half an hour to get a ride (then another twenty minutes to actually drive to our destination), I gave up on summoning a ride and decided we'd try to take the bus instead.

This, too, proved easier said than done. The #20 bus was supposed to pick us up at a stop opposite Pershing Square; it eventually arrived after twenty minutes, even though it was supposed to be running with shorter headway. The bus was free, because COVID. The bus lumbered through downtown LA and onto Wilshire and proceeded to stop at basically every block on Wilshire. It was faster than walking but not by much, and may or may not have been faster than waiting for a Lyft XL to show up.

At length we reached the La Brea Tar Pits and stepped into the museum to see Los Angeles' finest collection of fossils.

Columbian mammoth skeleton at the La Brea Tar Pits
Columbian mammoth skeleton at the La Brea Tar Pits

The introductory theater showing what I assume must have been the context to understand the rest of the museum was closed for unspecified reasons (which may or may not have had to do with the COVID-19 pandemic), so we encountered the museum without as much context as I expected: just a bunch of fossils, with some explanation about the individual fossils, but not a lot of context about where they had come from and why they were here. I tried to explain this to my kids but I'm not sure how much they got out of it.

After about an hour we'd seen the entire museum. I stopped by the gift shop to buy a coffee mug reinterpreting California's state flag with a saber-tooth cat instead of a bear, with a footnote explaining that the saber-tooth cat is California's state fossil. (I guess now that Ronald Regan is no longer with us, the saber-tooth cat doesn't have competition for the title of state fossil.)

Pour-over coffee in La Brea Tar Pits mug
Pour-over coffee in La Brea Tar Pits mug

We walked around the grounds and looked into the tar pits. (Julian amused himself by trying to follow the paw prints painted on the sidewalk as a trail to find the tar pits.) We walked past a very crowded LACMA, past a hole in the ground surrounded by fencing with construction cranes where there had been aging, mid-century museum building when I visited LACMA three years ago. I walked through Urban Light, where recovered lamp posts from around Los Angeles had come to live out their retirement, then tried to figure out where we should eat lunch. My map indicated there was some sort of cafe that looked like it had veg-friendly sandwiches down the street, but when we got there I discovered that it was closed for New Year's Eve, so we headed down the street in the opposite direction to Starbucks. My detour did, at least, give me the opportunity to look down into the chain-link fence surrounding the Metro construction at Fairfax for the purple line extension down Wilshire. (Now that Los Angeles is building a subway line down Wilshire, and we've visited the La Brea Tar Pits, I feel like I ought to revisit the 1990s disaster movie Volcano.)

Metro construction on Wilshire at Fairfax
Metro construction on Wilshire at Fairfax

On the way to Starbucks we passed sections of the Berlin Wall that had been moved and set up here, some with their original graffiti and some with new graffiti added. Calvin was especially interested in the wall; he walked around it several times and studied it from every angle, taking several pictures.

Calvin examines a section of the Berlin Wall
Calvin examines a section of the Berlin Wall

We ate a snack at Starbucks then continued walking down Wilshire to catch the #720 express bus to the nearest metro stop. (I didn't even bother trying to catch a Lyft.) As we walked through Mid-Wilshire we walked past two- and three-story buildings, many of which were adorned with art deco styling. Then I found, right in front of our bus stop, an entire block decorated with art deco planter boxes. This was one of the little things I came to appreciate about LA: random art deco when I least expected it.

Art deco planter boxes on Wilshire
Art deco planter boxes on Wilshire

We switched to the Purple Line and rode the train from its current terminus at Wilshire / Western to its other end, at Union Station. (I am not positive whether the express-bus/metro route was actually faster than our outbound slow-bus trip, but it felt like it should be faster.) Amtrak had found Julian's backpack, so we picked it up from the baggage office, then returned to our hotel. I took Julian to the small indoor pool; he spent most of the time holding onto the wall on the three-foot-deep section (which I guess must be the swimming equivalent of cruising); eventually I got him to try to practice some of the things he's learning in swimming lessons. (The pool was attached to the hotel gym, and there were signs saying that we ought to show our vaccine cards to get into the pool, but there wasn't anyone there who would enforce that.)

Kiesa ordered take-out tacos for dinner; by this point it seemed easier (and maybe less risky) to eat in our hotel room rather than eat indoors in the Omicron Wave. After supper I decided we needed to celebrate the new year with the kids with Martinelli's sparkling apple cider (from Watsonville), so I walked a couple of blocks to Whole Foods and found the sparkling cider shelf picked over by everyone else who had the same idea, but there was still enough there that I bought a bottle.

Looking down Wilshire in DTLA
Looking down Wilshire in DTLA

We toasted the new year (at like 20:00 PST, so we didn't keep Julian up too late), with the hope that 2022 will be better than 2021. I decided not to stay up for midnight because we had a train to catch in the morning; for me the new year passed unobserved. 2021 was better than 2020, but there's still room for improvement.

I *am* going to be rejected several times tomorrow.
- Centurion, 09 November 1999